When Hernando Cortes and his band of ne’er-do-wells arrived, the Aztec Empire was still in its childhood, having come into existence (more-or-less) around 1428 AD. Although the Excan Tlahtoloyan (Aztec Empire) lasted only one hundred years, it was an eventful one hundred years.
In the beginning... there were a number of small altepetl (city-states) scattered about the Valley of Mexico along the banks of the conjoined lakes Zumpango, Xaltocan, Texcoco, Xochimilco, and Chalco. The region had abundant rainfall and a temperate climate, and the land was fertile. So the Nahua (also known as the Mexihcati) peoples sought to settle there, having migrated south from Aztlan (the “White Land” – hence, “Aztecs”) sometime around 1250.
Unfortunately, several other tribes were already there, notably the Azcapotzalco and the Culhuacan. The mighty Azcapotzalco in 1325 gave the wandering Aztecs permission to settle on a small island in Lake Texcoco, where they founded their city Tenochtitlan; according to legend, the site was chosen because a priest man saw an eagle nesting in a nopal cactus - a sign that this was the chosen location. Yet Tenochtitlan was perfectly situated to grow – easily defended (being on an island), with plentiful water and fishing, and nearby sources of building materials. It seems the Aztecs were content to pay tribute to the Azcapotzalcos to be left alone … for the time being.
The Aztecs remained subject to the Azcapotzalcos for a century. Meanwhile another nearby altepetl was getting restless. The Alcohua city-state of Texcoco, situated at the southern end of the lake basin grew rich on trade, to the point where it challenged the Azcapotzalcos for dominance. In the ensuing war, Tenochtitlan remained true to the Azcapotzalcos and played a vital role in the conquest of Texcoco. As a result, the Aztecs were rewarded for their loyalty by receiving the defeated city as a tributary province.
Things were pleasant enough until the Azcapotzalco king Tezozomoc died suddenly in 1426. In the ensuing brief civil war, the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan supported the old king’s preferred heir, one Tayahuah – not the best choice as it turned out. His brother Maxtla won, and promptly set about punishing those who had backed Tayahuah. In the midst of this the Aztec king died under suspicious circumstances, likely assassinated on Maxtla’s orders. But the new king Itzcoatl remained defiant, and so Maxtla surrounded the city, blockaded the island, and demanded total surrender.
Simultaneously, Maztla turned on the Alcohua in Texcoco, for whom he had no great love either. The Texcoco ruler Nezahualcoyotl fled into exile and made his way to join Itzcoatl. And the dissident Azcapotzalco city Tlacopan threw its support to Itzcoatl. Thus was formed the famed Triple Alliance: three city-states with a common goal, the overthrow of Maxtla, which was accomplished by the end of 1427. Having smashed the Azcapotzalco completely, the three kings agreed to live “in accord.” Their first act was to divvy up the lands of the defeated; somehow Tenochtitlan got the lion’s share. So pleased were they all by this success that the three cities formalized their alliance. Under its provisions, all tribute was to be divided, and all three would participate in future wars of conquest with all sharing the spoils. The kings each took the title huetlatoani (“elder speaker”) in rotation, in effect serving as emperor of the allied realm.
Over the next century, under a series of able elder speakers, the Aztec Alliance would thrive, mainly by stomping on its neighbors until it reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific across Mesoamerica. In fact, this “empire” existed in a near-constant state of war, either for social or perhaps religious necessity. In the Aztec Weltanschaung (to mix tongues), death was instrumental to the perpetuation of life, and in the natural order of things both gods and humans had to sacrifice to keep creation in balance. And blood – human, as animal blood didn’t seem to work – kept the sun from falling. Since the citizens weren’t keen on being the ones to bleed, it was natural to use the lesser folk – prisoners (hence the need for lots of combat), slaves, servants, and the poor. The scale of the sacrifices was staggering; at the dedication of the Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid) in Tenochtitlan in 1487 for instance, historians have estimated between 10 and 80 thousand were killed, usually by beheading.
When the Aztecs weren’t celebrating with bloody rituals, they developed a culture and science unmatched in the Americas. For instance, the sophisticated Aztec calendar was the equal to any evolved in Europe or Asia. The tonalpohualli (“day count”) consisted of a 260-day cycle, each day signified by a number one through thirteen and one of 20 day signs; the xiuhpohualli or “year count” divided the year in 18 periods of 20 days each. Thus, a year consisted of 360 named days and five unnamed ones; these unnamed days were thought unlucky (certainly for those who got sacrificed on them to counter the bad karma). It is thought that this calendar arose from their intense study of the heavens, for they developed astronomy to an art form. And the Aztecs wrote it all down on amate, a bark paper, in their distinctive ideographic system.
When Itzcoatl passed away in 1440, he was replaced by his nephew Montezuma (the first, not to be confused with the less-able second). Montezuma’s older half-brother, Tlacaelel, was made Cihuacoatl, roughly the equivalent of a European prime minister. The two then proceeded to make Tenochtitlan the dominant partner in the alliance, in effect formalizing an Aztec Empire. Montezuma handled the conquering part – overrunning the Huastecs, the Totonacs, the Mixtecs, the Cosamaloapans, the Orizabas and the Cotaxtlas. Tlacaelel handled reshaping the Aztec civilization to his own vision.
While Montezuma was busy waging war, Tlacaelel literally rewrote the Aztec past and future, according to some sources ordering the burning of hundreds of texts because of “historical inaccuracies.” Under Tlacaelel, the revamped Aztec religion held that the Aztecs were a chosen people, destined to be above all others. Tlacaelel also emphasized the importance of militarism and ritual sacrifice in the “new” Aztec theology. And he oversaw the construction of a host of temples and religious buildings, including the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, consecrated (with a lot of sacrifices) to the newly paramount deity Huitzilopochtli.
The Aztecs thrived under the brothers for three decades. With Montezuma, the empire spanned a hundred thousand square miles, and about five million subjects were subject to its rule. With Tlacaelel, the subject tribes were largely left to their own devices, so long as the requisite tribute (which included sacrificial donations of course) and military forces were supplied on demand. Tenochtitlan became the center of a great trading network, and Aztec merchants happily did business with allies and enemies alike. Lacking any currency, trade was based upon barter. Possessing no draft animals or wheeled conveyances, Tlacaelel oversaw the construction of an extensive road system designed for foot traffic, since everything had to be carried from one place to another by humans. The roads were in constant use, guarded by the Aztec military, making them safe enough for even women to travel alone. He also had government-funded telpochcalli (schools) built in every neighborhood where boys received religious instruction and military training.
Montezuma I passed away in 1468 AD and was succeeded by his son Axayacatl, who spent his 13 years consolidating his father’s conquests, putting down various rebellions and fending off the uppity Tarascan Empire. (Tlacaelel died in 1487, much to the relief of many, no doubt.) When Axayacatl died, he was replaced by his brother, the monumentally incompetent Tizoc, who was assassinated by his nobles after just five years. He was followed by another brother – Ahuitzotl – in 1486, who proved better; he conquered the city-state of Otzoma, whose population disappeared (either killed or sacrificed en masse), and began building a line of fortresses along several contested borderlands. Ahuitzotl died in the Year 10 Rabbit (to make use of the convoluted Aztec calendar). His nephew, Montezuma II, was elevated to the throne.
The new Montezuma’s reign started out inauspiciously … and then went downhill. He removed the more competent of Ahuitzotl’s advisors, having most of them executed. He then abolished the quauhpilli class – a sort of semi-noble stage – in Aztec society, destroying any chance for commoners to advance their family. The unwashed masses thus had no incentive to serve the empire militarily or in any other manner. Having angered the most powerful noble families and alienated the commoners, Montezuma was, needless-to-say, ill-prepared to meet the challenge of greedy Spaniards, who showed up on the Aztec doorstep in February 1519.
Earlier that year, an expedition under the command of Hernando Cortes – consisting of some 11 ships, 630 men, 13 horses and a few small cannon – landed in the Yucatan, part of the Mayan Empire. In point of fact, the charter for Cortes’ expedition had been revoked by the Spanish governor of Cuba before his departure from port, but Cortes ignored his orders in an act of open mutiny and sailed anyway (guess fortune really does “favor the fool-hearty”). After a few adventures, the conquistadors ended up sailing to and seizing the small native settlement at Veracruz, where they met a couple of Aztec governors of tributary states. These two agreed to set up a meet between Cortes and Montezuma II.
Montezuma stubbornly refused to accept the Spanish “envoy” however, so Cortes set out for Tenochtitlan uninvited. Like most unwelcome guests, the Spanish left chaos in their wake. Marching towards the capital with a host of native warriors – looking for adventure, loot or revenge – joining his troupe, Cortes arrived in the large city of Cholula. There his merry band massacred thousands of unarmed members of the local Aztec nobility gathered in the square before the Great Pyramid there (the largest pyramid by volume in the world). Then for good measure, the Spaniards burned the city. So impressed by all the bloodshed were the downtrodden Aztec vassals that more joined the expedition. By the time Cortes reached Tenochtitlan, he had quite a following.
Bowing to the inevitable, Montezuma II welcomed the Spaniards into the city peacefully to meet and talk. Whereupon Cortes made him prisoner. To make a long story short, eventually the Aztecs stoned Montezuma to death and drove the Spanish out of their capital. But Cortes returned with reinforcements, laying siege to Tenochtitlan. What with all the firearms and cannon and horses (which the Aztecs were most impressed by), the city soon fell and was razed … and in August 1521 Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of the Aztecs, was captured and later executed.
The bloody Aztec overlords were gone, and the empire shattered into separate city-states again, now under Spanish suzerainty.